Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within
John Skipp, Editor
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
Trade Paper, 640 pages, $18.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Transitions can be taxing, but transformations can be killing. In Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within, this is quite literally true. Editor John Skipp assembles an array of stories that exemplify the complexities of change. The hefty volume features previously unpublished works, as well as finely chosen reprints. Gallows humor (consider the editor) abounds, yet there are also many profoundly disturbing tales of horror.
Two dark fairy tales serve as bookend pieces: “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, and “Sweetheart Come” by Alethea Kontis. Carter opens the anthology with lush lyricism: “That long-drawn out howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.” While Carter evokes empathy for the werewolves, she does caution: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate.” Kontis, who has the enviable last place position in the book, embraces bonds and commitment in her lovely Sweetheart Come. The lure of the woods threatens a marriage; there is a feral familial history. Confronting that aspect, as well as human strength and vulnerability, renders a deeply moving and loving look at meaningful relationships.
For those who prefer levity with their lycanthropes, Mr. Skipp is most happy to provide and indulge: From Saki’s fey and wondrous Gabriel-Ernest; to Joe R. Lansdale’s raunchy and demented Dalmatian in “Fire Dog;” to Neil Gaiman’s laugh inducing riff on Lovecraft, Sam Spade, and The Wolf Man in “Only the End of the World Again.” The differences in narrative tone and structure, among these three choice morsels, reminds of the variety and potential of whimsy. And words.
Out and out horror; not at all forgotten. It is most present and strongly represented. In David J. Schow’s “Not From Around Here,” the bedroom community lifestyle is examined with a scathing sensibility: “The big, bad neon nightmare. What penetrated now was the truth – that the state of nature is the last thing any thinking being would want. The true state of nature is not romantic. It is savage, primal, unforgivingly hostile. Mercy is a quality of civilization. Out here, stuck halfway between the wilds and the cities, a man had to settle his own grief.”
If sexual dynamics concerning altered entities is of interest, it will be satisfied in Violet Glaze’s “Warm, In Your Coat;” a look at a lesbian werewolf’s eating disorders. In “Strange Skin,” author Bentley Little regards stimulation from a less is more point of view: Lack of pubic hair and genitalia; a sort of physical tabula rasa, is a turn on. “In this media-saturated society where uniformity was not only admired but considered a worthy goal, uniqueness had become something exotic, something excitedly reported upon by the tabloid news programs, sleazy magazines, and unattributable Internet sources.”
There is enough variety and bite in Werewolves and Shapeshifters to satisfy cravings, of any stripe, color, or shape. Theme and editor are perfectly matched in this collection. John Skipp is a basher of the banal; the selections in the anthology reflect his disdain for the mundane.